RUBBING ALONG TOGETHER

Bangkok, 1 November 2014

I think it must be a scientific law that the closer you get to the equator, the more species you will find per square metre (or foot, if you wish) looking for their space in the sun. All that steamy heat seems to lead to a sustained biological ebullience. Certainly, in a totally unscientific survey, my wife and I have agreed that the number of species wishing to share with us our hot and steamy Bangkok apartment is considerably higher than it was in Beijing. There, over a period of five years, we catalogued a few, relatively small, cockroaches making a frantic getaway over the floor and that was it (although the rare cockroach sighting led to apoplectic calls to the front desk and demands for a thorough chemical spraying). Here, in just one month and a bit, we have seen:

– A little lizard, very pale, almost albino, which we first sighted peeping out from under the dining table, then from behind a column that we have in the living room, then in the cupboard under the kitchen sink. He looked very similar to this little fellow.
image
I have had a soft spot for lizards ever since I used to chase them as a boy across the walls of my grandmother’s garden in France, so I was pleased to see it. But my wife is not a lizardophile and demanded that I get rid of it. I rather reluctantly chased it around a bit and was secretly pleased when it disappeared of its own accord.
– A horribly large cockroach, which luckily was flat on its scaly back, dead, in the shower. But I have seen them horribly alive, skittering ahead of me across the pavements, always in the darker corners of the neighborhood. Disgusting creatures, I refuse to grace them with a picture ….
– A number of wonderfully large moths, which flutter in at night from out over the river and settle down for a rest. They are really beautiful, nothing like the dreary little things we have in Europe, so I’d be pleased to share my living space with them.
image
But my wife is having none of it, so with a sigh I shoo them out, using the pasta drainer to catch them and carry them out.
– Several species of bird which use the balcony railing as a favorite stopping place. There are those pesky pigeons which crowd our squares in Europe. But there has also been a beautiful bird, which I think is also a type of pigeon although my wife disagrees.
image
Cheeky little sparrows also hop on and off the railings, beadily eyeing any crumbs which might have fallen off the table that we carry out onto the balcony for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
– swallows, which my wife says she found early one morning twittering around on the living room parquet (we had left the windows open). Imagine that! I see them dive and swoop over the river
image
as I have seen them dive and swoop over summer fields in Europe. But I have never seen them stand still.

All this in the few square meters (or feet, if you wish) of our apartment. Expanding out a little, we’ve seen beautiful little birds, black with white tufts on their wings, fluttering silently on and off the clumps of water hyacinth which drift past us on the river. They have recently been joined by a lovely white egret.

image
And then there’s the Asian koel bird which I’ve mentioned before. I keep on hearing it, but I’ve never managed to see it. In the dirty, oh so very dirty, canal which runs behind the office, I’ve seen what I think is a monitor lizard swimming lazily (or sickly?) in the watery gook: the water is greyer than in this photo.
image
The same canal teams with fish, which some enterprising (or mad?) people fish from time to time. And we have a couple of next-door fishermen who put out their nets in the river while we are having breakfast, well out of the way of the busy river traffic. I’ve sometimes caught a gleam of silvery scales in the bottom of their shallow little boats.

image

But I presume that the number of species we can stumble across in the concrete jungle of Bangkok would be nothing compared to what is present in the real jungle – or what is left of it in Thailand. That pleasure awaits us still.

_______________
Lizard: http://naturestudent.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/20130121-162953.jpg (in http://naturestudent.wordpress.com/2013/01/21/lovely-lizards/)
Moth: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-R3HpNI3L0lM/TzdPTJ13xQI/AAAAAAAAAD8/TiXKoEuS1go/s1600/Samia+canningii.JPG (in http://norfolkbirderinthailand.blogspot.com/2012/02/thailand-moths-part-two.html)
Bird on the balcony railing: my wife’s picture
Flying swallow: https://c1.staticflickr.com/9/8164/7244597922_bd666a00e8_z.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/clicks_1000/7244597922/)
Egret: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f1/Little_Egret_flying_-_Thailand.jpg (in http://c
ommons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Little_Egret_flying_-_Thailand.jpg)
Monitor lizard: http://cdn2.vtourist.com/4/6079856-Monitor_lizard_swims_khlong_Bangkok.jpg?version=2 (in http://www.virtualtourist.com/travel/Asia/Thailand/Central_Eastern_Thailand/Bangkok-1445238/Off_the_Beaten_Path-Bangkok-Khlongs_Canals-BR-1.html)

PERAMBULATING PARQUETS

Bangkok, 26 October 2014

My wife has been busy getting to know Bangkok in her usual favorite way, taking the bus (with me joining her on the weekends). When she told the very nice Thai couple whom we have befriended in the building that she takes the bus to get around, they stared at her and finally managed to ask, “the aircon buses?” When she said no, no, the normal buses, they tittered nervously. When pressed, they confessed to have not taken a bus in twenty years. (This reminds me of a scene early in our marriage. It was downtown Baltimore, 1978 or 9. We wanted to get somewhere, I forget where, so we approached a nice young man sitting on a bench eating his lunch and asked him what bus we might take. He confessed that he had no idea, that he had never taken a city bus in his life. We stared at him: how could it be that someone had NEVER taken a bus? The difference between a European and an American, I suppose. But I digress.)

It is true to say that the (non-aircon) buses of Bangkok are not the most handsome of buses. In fact, they obviously have had a hard-scrabble life.
image
And their technology looks – and sounds – very old-fashioned. For instance, whenever the drivers change gears (using a huge gear shift as big as the seated drivers themselves), it sounds distinctly like they are double-declutching (a term which I would imagine is meaningless to anyone below the age of 60). The drivers are always in a tearing hurry, no doubt due to being perennially bottled up in Bangkok’s terrible traffic, so getting on and off buses is an athletic accomplishment. To get on, wave down the bus, rush for the door, swing in as the bus already starts to move off. To get off, ring for the stop, balance yourself on the balls of your feet, hustle down the steps the moment the doors start clattering noisily open, and drop down into the street as the bus already moves off. And while inside, hang on for dear life as the bus barrels its way down the city’s streets, riding roughshod over every pothole and other imperfection in the road’s mantle.

But as I grimly hang on in the bus, bouncing up and down on the (really quite comfortable) seats, I cannot help but wonder at the beautiful parquet floor which the buses have. Look at that! Who has ever seen parquet floors in buses?
image
Well, “parquet” may be pushing it a little, but this is really nice wood they’ve used. No trash soft wood here, being rubbed to pieces by passenger’s dirty shoes. This is close-grained hardwood. I would be proud to have a floor of that in our living room, sanded down and waxed into a rich red-brown color, instead of the fake plasticized “parquet” which our miserly landlord has laid down and which rings hollow every time we walk across it. I wince when I see how this beautiful wood has been mercilessly screwed down onto to the bus chassis, with big, gleaming, screws. Aie-aie-aie!

The only thing that worries me here is the wood’s provenance. This is not plantation wood, nor I’m sure is it certified wood from responsibly managed forests. I fear that this is just brutally logged wood from Myanmar or Laos or perhaps Indonesia (Thailand has already cut down much of its forests).
image
Perhaps it would be better for Bangkok to shift to modern, gleaming, air-conditioned, buses with plasticized floors
imageand leave this beautiful wood standing in its wilderness, soaring up towards the sky.
image

_______________
Bangkok bus: http://www.langeasy.com/images2/bkk/bus2.jpg (in http://www.langeasy.com/cities/bangkok/bangkokpage1.html)
Bangkok bus floor: my photo
Illegal logging: http://www.globalpost.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/gp3_slideshow_large/illegal_logging_in_anlong_veng_ii.jpg ( in http://pixgood.com/illegal-loggers.html)
Modern city bus: http://i01.i.aliimg.com/photo/v2/280618923_1/SLK6111_Aluminum_Body_City_Bus.jpg (in http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?t=1468014)
Mahogany tree soaring: http://treepicturesonline.com/tree-mahogany.jpg (in http://treepicturesonline.com/mahogany_tree_pictures.html)

TUGGING AT MY HEARTSTRINGS

Bangkok, 9 October 2014

Our living room is small, but it has a magic view on the Chao Phraya River. Two of the living room’s walls are all glass and allow us a wonderful view up and down the river.

image

image

My wife and I maximize this view every morning by dragging our table out onto the narrow balcony which wraps around our living room and taking our breakfast – tea, cereal, and tropical fruit – all the while watching the parade of boats moving up and down the river.

Let’s be clear, the boats we see are not as handsome as these 1920s yachts.

image

I suppose the most striking boat we see are the long-tailed boats which skim across the river’s surface, their huge roaring motors in the stern peremptorily signaling their presence to one and all.

image

The water buses that ply the river aren’t so showy, but their raked bow gives them a certain allure.

image

My heart, though, goes out to the lowly ugly tugs which rumble slowly up and down the river dragging trains of barges behind them – slowly, so very slowly when the barges are full, slightly more jauntily when they are empty.

image

image

I sit there, watching them tug and strain, and will them on: “Go, little tug, go! You can do it! Attaboy!”

They may work hard, but these tugs are no shrinking violets. No drab work clothes for them. No siree, their owners paint them strong, happy colors, to signal how proud they are of their work partners. I mean, look at them!

image

image

As these tugboats pass, flaunting their color schemes, I can’t help but think dreamily of the tugboats of my youth, like Theodore the Tugboat

image

or Little Toot the Tugboat

image

or even Scuffy the Tugboat

image

Toot, toot!! Tug away, fellas! Job well done! I hope you get a rest and a good lube job in the evening. Toot, toot!!

__________________

Views of Chao Phraya river: my photos
1920s yachts: http://abrushwithsail.blogspot.com/2012/06/grand-yachts-of-1920s.html
long-tailed boat: http://swissnomads.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/long-tail-boat.jpg
water bus: my wife’s photo
tub boat and barges: my photo and http://www.panoramio.com/m/photo/47654772
colourful tugboats: my wife’s photos
Theodore the Tugboat: http://www.mtcw.ca/theodoretugboat/Tours.php
Little Toot the Tugboat: http://blog.keloland.com/lund/blog/2010/12/20/aunt-leilas-records/
Scuffy the Tugboat: http://www.betterworldbooks.com/scuffy-the-tugboat-sail-away-id-0375826963.aspx

SOUNDS OF BANGKOK

Bangkok, 19 September 2014

Well, we’ve finally moved to Bangkok. We’ve found ourselves a place on the Chao Phraya river, literally overlooking it. The open water gives rise to constant breeze which we can channel through the apartment by a judicious opening of various windows, obviating the need for air-conditioning – a minor miracle in this heavily air-conditioned city. When, as now, the evening’s storm clouds come rolling in, that breeze will rise to a stiff sou’-wester’ threatening to blow every light object into the river below and sends us scurrying around the apartment closing windows and doors. At these moments, I find myself back on my grandmother’s sailing boat, with her at the tiller imperiously ordering me and any other grandchild around to lash down everything movable as the summer storm rips over us and the boat starts to lean over at a precipitous angle.

During the day, that same breeze wafts into our living room all the noises of the river and its banks: the deep grumble of the tug boats slowly pulling the heavily laden barges upriver, the growl of the water-buses as they tack back and forth across the river from stop to stop, the creaking and groaning from the landing piers lining the bank as the wash of passing ships sends their platforms oscillating, the slightly atonal call to prayer from a mosque somewhere on the far bank, the more profane call to evening aerobics in a small park just downriver, the occasional siren from a police car racing over one of the nearby bridges, and just the ordinary household noises rising out of the houses below our balcony.

But for me, two sounds stand out from this medley. One is the piercing whistling used by the water bus conductors to guide the drivers when they berth at stops. I haven’t yet understood the signaling, but somehow the conductor makes the driver understand when to reverse the engine to slow down, then idle it, then start it again to move off from the stop. As I listen and watch, fascinated, I am suddenly back in Hyde Park looking on at a competition of Welsh shepherds using whistling to guide their sheep dogs into driving a flock of sheep from one place to another (I’m not sure the drivers of the water buses would appreciate being compared to sheep dogs).

The other sound is the cry of a bird. It is very distinctive. It starts with a low cry, which is followed in rapid succession by a series of ever higher and more piercing cries, finally reaching a crescendo and dying out. I have asked my Thai staff what the bird is called. They are still wrestling with the Thai name, let alone the English name. In the meantime, I am calling it the Fake Orgasm Bird. It reminds me every time of a night I spent in a cheap hotel in Geneva (cheap for Geneva, expensive for anywhere else), where I was woken up in the early hours by a Lady of the Night who was pleasing her customer by oohing and aahing at the top of her lungs. She sounded exactly like my Bangkok bird.

Postscript 22 November 2014:

I have finally identified my mystery bird! It is the Asian koel. For those who might be interested in its call, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TU3T6jikQqg.

PEOPLE ON THE MOVE

Bangkok, 27 July 2014

Well, I’ve received my transfer orders. I’m moving to Bangkok to take over our office there. So my wife and I have been down in Bangkok for the last week, looking for a place to stay. For the moment, we’re renting an apartment which we got through AirBnB. It gives right onto the Chao Phraya River, which runs through the middle of the city and around which the city grew. So as we have breakfast in the morning before we go out apartment-hunting we can watch the traffic on the river: the empty barges, riding high

ships on river 002

the full barges, with water to their gunwales

ships on river 005

the express boats crowded with commuters darting in between as they weave their way from bank to bank.

ships on river 001

But what also catches my eye is this temple on the other side of the river

temple across the river 001

and it always reminds me of … China. Or rather, a certain corner of China, the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture. This is way down in the south of Yunnan province, squeezed between Laos to the East and Myanmar to the West. A few years back, we spent a Dragon Boat Festival holiday in the prefecture’s main town, Jinghong, in a beautiful house which was built from elements scavenged from traditional houses that were being torn down in China’s rush to modernity.

Yourantai-interior

It too gave on a river, the Mekong in this case (although the Chinese don’t call it that; it’s the Lancang River to them), and there too we could gaze down on the river while having our breakfast.

Yourantai-view of the river

The temples in Jinghong are built in the same style as the one I see across my breakfast table, or at least the newer establishments are.

Mange-Buddhist-Temple-Jinghong-XishuangBanna

The older temples in the area are somewhat more sobre.

temple Xishuangbanna

This very obvious echoing of the Thai style has a simple reason. The Thai people (Dai people in this part of the world, hence the name of the prefecture) originally came from southern China. Then, for reasons which may have to do with the southwards migration of the Han Chinese, a portion of them upped sticks in the first millennium AD and started wandering south through Laos and Myanmar until they settled in what is now Thailand. But they left echoes of their culture behind, reflected in the designs of the temples but also in the language – many of the signs in Jinghong are in Thai as well as in Chinese.

The local culture (Thai and non-Thai; the ethnic mix in this part of the world is quite bewildering) is threatened with submersion in the Han culture – recall that this is why the Thais probably originally started migrating southwards. Until the 1950s there were few Han Chinese in this part of Yunnan – they were afraid of the malaria, which was then endemic. But the Chinese communists vigorously promoted programmes which eradicated the malaria. They then brought in poverty-stricken migrants from other parts of China and put them to work cutting down the jungle and planting rubber trees in its place, so now the hills around Jinghong are monotonously covered with acre after acre of rubber trees. These are all clones from the same genetic line. Those who know about these things predict that sooner or later (probably sooner rather than later) a rubber tree virus from Brazil will arrive here and wipe out every single rubber tree: an environmental disaster of epic proportions.

In the meantime, the descendants of the miserably poor Chinese who were sent to Xishuangbanna to plant and tap all those rubber trees still live in miserably poor Chinese villages, scorned and resented by the local populations.

As I look at the temple across the river and reflect on all these historic movements of people, I am reminded of the current tensions in Thailand caused by more recent movements, tensions between migrants from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, who do the dirty, poorly paying jobs which the locals no longer want to do, and the Thais, who have conveniently forgotten (if they were ever taught) that they too were once migrants.

“Plus ça change et plus c’est la même chose”, as Jean-Baptiste Karr, a French journalist and novelist, said back in 1849, and as my French grandmother was fond of quoting: the more things change, the more they stay the same. So true.

___________________

Chao Phraya river pics: mine
Yourantai-interior: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/01/b9/8b/a5/les-repas-dans-un-cadre.jpg [in http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g528741-d1749170-i28937125-Yourantai_B_B-Jinghong_Yunnan.html%5D
Yourantai-river view: http://www.cielyunnan.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Yourantai-24.jpg [in http://www.cielyunnan.com/hotels/hotels-xishuangbanna/xishuangbanna-yourantai-resort/%5D
Buddhist temple Jinghong: http://www.yunnanadventure.com/UploadFiles/Yunnan-Attractions/Xishuangbanna-Attractions/Mange-Buddhist-Temple-Jinghong-XishuangBanna.jpg [in http://www.yunnanadventure.com/attraction-p156-mange-buddhist-temple-jinghong-city
Temple Xishuangbanna: http://www.wildchina.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/img_8570.jpg [in http://www.wildchina.com/es/multimedia/wildchina-blog-details/yunnan-hiking-in-xishuangbanna%5D